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Englewood Review of Books (29 May 2009)

The Work of Creating Wise and Loving Communities

Reviewed by Chris Smith

A Conservationist Manifesto is a glorious new collection of essays by Scott Russell Sanders, the noted novelist, nature writer and Distinguished Professor of English at Indiana University. Sanders sets the tone for this collection in the preface by challenging the prevailing consumerism of Western culture and issuing the call for us to “savor and preserve” the world instead of devouring it (xi).

The book is divided into three parts which represent facets of Sanders’ vision of conservation: “Caring for the Earth,” “Caring for Home Ground” and “Caring for Generations to come.” The use of the language of care here stands in contrast to the carelessness of consumer culture (see, for instance, John McKnight’s The Careless Society) and should also be of interest to the Church as we seek to embody our vocation as stewards of creation. In the book’s first part, Sanders explores the language and imagery that we use to speak of the Earth as a whole. He begins by drawing on the biblical story of Noah (artfully juxtaposed with that of present-day tree-sitting environmental activists) to challenge us to see the Earth as an Ark. He concludes:

We are not the captains of this vessel, although we may flatter ourselves by thinking so. We are common passengers, and yet because we are both clever and numerous, we bear a unique responsibility to do everything we can to assure that this one precious ark will stay afloat, with all the least and greatest of our fellow travelers safely on board (21).

The next essay, on “Common Wealth,” is reminiscent of Wendell Berry’s work, and especially of Bill McKibben’s renowned book Deep Economy. In an age where consumerism implores us to amass a wealth of stuff for ourselves as individuals, Sanders argues eloquently that we need to recover a sense of resources that we hold in common with our neighbors. Churches, in particular, should meditate on the wisdom of his thought that “The work of creating wise and loving communities begins with cherishing our common wealth” (32). In the essay, “Two Stones,” Sanders uses two small stones – one a chunk of 320-million-year-old Indiana siltstone, the other a lump of pumice taken from the shore of Ghost Lake after the explosion of Mt. St. Helens – to tell two inter-woven stories about the Earth. The siltstone tells the story of the Earth’s “great age and ceaseless flow and perennial vigor” (66). The pumice, on the other hand, tells the story of nature’s resiliency and capacity to heal herself. These stories, taken together, remind us of the importance both of conserving the “living abundance” of the Earth and of the humility with which we must approach this task.

The essays of the book’s second part, “Caring for Home Ground,” serve as a superb introduction to the beauty and significance of being rooted in a place. These essays were especially meaningful to me, as the place that Sanders has laid down his roots – Bloomington, Indiana – is one that I have lived in, am deeply familiar with and one that is not too far removed geographically and culturally from my own place in Indianapolis. The initial essay “The Geography of Somewhere” is both a critique of the nowhere-ness of the consumer landscape and a plea for the re-establishment of distinctive local places that are worthy of our love and commitment. Churches, as communities within communities, have a deep potential for restoring and nurturing the local identity of a place. Thus, we would do well to listen carefully to Sanders’ reflections here on the significance of place. “Hometown,” the second essay in this part, is Sanders’ own story of coming to settle in Bloomington and the challenges that he and his family faced along the way. Oh! that more people (especially in our churches) would be of the same mind as Sanders:

[My] chief ambition … was not to make a good career but to make a good life. And such a life, as I came to understand it, meant being a husband and father first, and an employee second; it meant belonging to a place rather than to a profession; it meant being a citizen as well as an artist (114).

The final essay in this part of the book, “Limberlost,” was for me perhaps the most inspiring piece in this whole volume. Here Sanders introduces Gene Stratton-Porter and her works... Sanders tells the story of this early twentieth century Indiana writer and naturalist as another example, alongside his own, of the beauty of being rooted in and committed to the ecology of a place. I am eager to explore her works firsthand, especially her works on the birds and moths of Indiana.

The final part of the book – with its themes of sabbath, stillness and simplicity – read almost like a work on the spiritual disciplines. Indeed, we will need discipline of our minds, our bodies and appetites if we are to offer to our children a saner and more habitable planet (the theme of this final part). Here we also find the essay that lends its title to the book, which could have stood alone as a bold tract or broadside, but herein its 40 theses distill the wisdom and supplications of all the stories and everyday sermons laid out over the course of the book. He begins by laying this foundation:

The work of conservation is inspired by wonder, gratitude, reason, and love. We need all of these emotions and faculties to do the work well. But the first impulse is love – love for wild and settled places, for animals and plants, for people living now and those yet to come, for the creations of human hands and minds (211).

Again, this manifesto is well-worth the reflection of our church communities. If we say that love is essential to who we are in Christ, then these points challenge us to consider how we love each other and love the life of all God’s creation, with whom our lives are inter-twined in our local places. Indeed, Sanders concludes:

Conservation arises from the perennial human desire to dwell in harmony with our neighbors – those that creep and fly, those that swim and soar, those that sway on roots, as well as those that walk about on two legs. We seek to make a good and lasting home. We strive for a way of life that our descendants will look back on with gratitude, a way of life worthy of our magnificent planet (219).

A Conservationist Manifesto is a rich book and like a rich wine or rich dessert, it is meant to be savored. Sanders sees beyond the mass destruction of consumerism and prophetically calls us to the redemptive work of conserving creation and connecting deeply with our neighbors and the places in which we live. Ultimately, it is a hopeful book, but it spells out in clear terms the ways in which we need to repent. Our scriptural calling is to be an expression of the Body of Christ in particular places. We are called to be a people united together as one Body, a culture that reflects – and indeed is – Christ in ways that can be understood by our neighbors. Over time, we discern the shape of our life together, a local culture – in the fullest sense of that term – that shows the light of Christ’s redemptive work radiating through all corners of life: economic, social, familial, etc. Sanders’ excellent writing in A Conservationist Manifesto thus names the sins of our Western consumer culture and points us in the direction of our calling as the church. It ever-so-gently insists that we lovingly discern together how we are to begin to embody the way of conservation in our own particular neighborhoods.


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